Does India Need an Aircraft Carrier?
Recently, the Indian Navy started sea trials for the INS Vikrant aircraft carrier, the first indigenously built one in the country. Along with the existing Russian-built INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy now has two in total. It has a diesel-electric generator motor (which implies a limited range, unlike a nuclear reactor which can run for months or even years without refuelling), a non-catapult take-off system (meaning it cannot use conventional fighter aircraft, it has to use fighters with VSTOL capability) and a capacity of around 25-30 aircraft. Compared to the usual specifications of the giant American Nuclear Reactor powered aircraft carriers, these may seem like modest figures. Indeed, the uninitiated have commented on the perceived disadvantage that the ship has on paper. However, the truth is that the Indian Armed Forces never build or buy more than is necessary, and that is due to the nature of the armed forces.
Compared to its immediate neighbours, China and Pakistan, as well as the US, the nature of India’s military forces has always been one defined by a defensive strategic focus. It does not engage unless engaged with and it does not expand territory anymore than what has already been defined. Therefore, the choice of having two operational aircraft carriers in the Navy is interesting. The US currently operates 10 aircraft carriers, with 10 more being built or on order to replace these. However, the US Navy is the largest ‘Blue water’ navy in the world, which means it has a presence in all the oceans and every naval channel in the world. Therefore, to patrol and command these channels and maintain its superiority, it relies on an excessive force of vessels that allow it to operate anywhere in the world. Similarly, China has shown an expansionist tendency because of which it has necessitated a presence in waters far beyond its natural need, such as in the South China sea, the Japanese bay and the Indian Ocean.
Even India is a blue water navy with multi regional power projection. However, because of the defensive nature of the Indian Navy, it operates only where it feels the need to defend its maritime borders, and these are primarily protecting the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the larger Indian Ocean region. Because of the power projection capabilities of aircraft carriers, the two existing carriers in the Indian Navy are able to defend the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal from their most immediate threats, Pakistan and China respectively. But the most important part of the arsenal of the Indian Navy is what is called the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, and that is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, which extends the operational capabilities of the organisation with a reliability and safety that cannot be matched with anything by China. This trump card has been the reason why China has been so insistent on building a network of naval ports and bases in the Indian Ocean to counter the power projection of the Indian Navy. With the formation of the Quad between Indian, Japan, Australia and the USA, China has a further reason to rethink its policies on expansionism in the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian region. It is now possible to see aircraft carriers from four relatively hostile nations patrolling the South China Sea.
The building of the aircraft carrier is important not only for its geo-political significance, but also because its construction can be considered as practice for an overall assessment of India’s ship-building capabilities. With the successful construction of INS Vikrant and INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear reactor-based Submarine, this capability has been proven. Thus, it proves to be a great incentive and signal for the industrial sector in India.
However, the biggest source of contention is that the knowledge gained from such projects should ideally be used for peaceful civilian purposes. For example, the nuclear technology used for the INS Arihant can be a precursor to an energy revolution in India, with a more positive outlook towards alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear energy. This could be a step forward which if invested in soon can leave dividends for future generations, and even help reduce the carbon emissions of India’s industrial sector. Another worrying aspect of the construction of these vessels is the fact that the contract for them is usually given to an organisation that is complimentary and close to the current government, and this opens the door for public risks, such as massive levels of corruption. Thus, such projects should be scrutinised thoroughly before hailing them in jingoistic narratives that belie the underlying issues with them.